Combating Forest Fires

Combating Forest Fires

Himanshu Sekhar Panigrahi

Deputy Manager-CSR

Hindustan Copper Limited

(A Government of India enterprise)


Now, the fires in the forests of Uttarakhand have completely settled down. Nevertheless the loss caused to the flora and fauna is nearly irreversible. In these years when the problem of global warming and climate change is getting exacerbated, incidences of raging forest fires are making the challenge more arduous to deal with. This year, the hill state is not alone to witness such forest fires. Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Chhatisgarh have experienced this kind of cataclysm though in different extents in the first few months of 2016. It is ironical that most of these are overlooked, and the intensity of damage caused is not brought into calculation. Put together, these ravaging fires acquire the proportion no less than any national, or rather, international disaster.

Forests cover a third of all land, providing essential organic infrastructure for all the life forms. They support countless species as well as livelihoods of 1.6 billion human beings. The ecological, economic and aesthetic value they provide since the very beginning of existence of life is incomparable. Natural forests, as different from man-made forests, are unique in many ways and are a gift of nature to the mankind.

The forests of our country are shrinking fast. The depletion of forest coverage is going hand-in-hand with the industrialization and economic development. As the logic of development policy-makers and planners that ‘economic growth may not be possible without compromising a bit with the forests’ cannot be disqualified outright, destruction of natural forests for other purposes and by other causes should never be belittled or accepted.

But, the forests of the country now reel under growing threat- within and outside, natural and man-made. On the top of it, the forest coverage of India including the spectacular Himalayan forest region is subject to frequent fire now-a-days. The Forest Survey of India has recorded incidences of more than 20,000 forest fires in the first four months of 2016. The number of fire outbreaks has gone up by multiple times in the past few years. As per the studies of the forest departments of States, more and more areas of forest are turning fire-prone these days. Till now almost 50% of India’s forest areas are susceptible to fire. More than 95% of forest fires in India are human-induced. The increased vulnerability of forests can be gauged from the frequency, size, intensity and type of fires witnessed recently.

The irony is that most forest fire events are reported to be deliberate acts of miscreants or outcome of negligence by people with poor awareness. It is no lesser-known truth that evil-intended ploy of the timber mafia to set off the fires to get immediate and illegal benefits has become so common. Sometimes as the villagers set grasslands afire to get softer grass after the rains, the fire spreads to nearby forests. Often people resort to this practice for shifting cultivation. Collectors of fuel wood, charcoal and non-timber forest produces (NTFPs) start fires for easy and maximum collection. Apart from human-made causes, natural or environmental reasons of forest fire are lack of rainfall and extreme dryness. Severe rise in mercury level offering favourable conditions for a fire to start is one of the prime reasons. Majority of the fires in the Himalayan region happen in pine forests. In summer, pine trees shed needles that are highly inflammable.

Forest fires annihilate the biodiversity directly and absolutely, in addition to the most obvious adverse effect of destruction of property and biomass in existence for decades. Frequent occurrence disturbs the natural cycles of the forests by wiping out native plant species and supporting growth of fire-resistant plants. Ash generated by such fires ruin plant nutrients. Hazardous chemicals emitting from burning affects health of humans, wild animals, birds and reptiles remarkably. Forest fires increase the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thus intensifying the harmful green house effect. As the experts have opined, recent forest fires in Uttarakhand could melt the Himalayan glaciers faster and negatively influence sustainability of the rivers flowing through India’s northern plains. Long-term impact of these mishaps on the ecosystem and climate can be easily perceived. Aside from these, human livelihood is directly and indirectly disturbed by frequent happening of wildfires.

Irrespective of the cause that is tough to identify, forest fires spread fast. Owing to the vast area of forests, even timely and quick action may fall short to contain the rapid spread of fire. Hence, it needs lot of coordinated effort from several departments at the local and state level, and sometimes with the support of the central departments. In order to effectively combat forest fires, some factors like time, skill and advanced equipments must be taken care of. Delay in dealing with the forest fires should be avoided with timely and prompt action. Fighters of forest fires need to be well-equipped with knowledge and skill to respond efficiently to these calamities. Cadres of fighters must be formed in advance and be groomed with state-of-the-art training and high-end technology.

With the growing occurrences of forest fires, it has become inevitable to develop an inclusive and broad-based plan at the top to address these problems. The initiative of the Ministry of Environment to formulate a contingency plan to manage major forest fires is a welcome step. Yet, micro-level plans should be in place at state-level, rather at forest regions, not only to douse such fires but also to control its frequency.

Further, the government should encourage full-fledged research and development of technology to take care of these catastrophes of wildfire. More effective strategies may be designed for prevention, detection, and suppression of forest fires. At the same time, focus must be on generating awareness among local people and secure their involvement to complement and supplement the efforts of government. 

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